Monday, September 30, 2019

Listening to Macca #9: Flaming Pie, Etc.

This month is the Paul McCartney of the mid- to late-1990s, Macca moving through his fifth decade, Sir Paul reuniting (sort of) with George Harrison and Ringo Starr to produce the monumental Beatles Anthology project, and, tragically, losing his wife Linda to cancer after nearly 30 years of marriage. It was a period that saw him diving into his past, and perhaps even turning a little reflective at times--which is rare for a man who has continually insisted over the decades that he has to rely upon his fans to remind him of details of his own history. Unlike what I saw in the undeniable accomplishments of his late 40s-early 50s, with a couple of wonderful, rejuvenating pop albums and a couple of fabulous world tours, I don't quite have a narrative for McCartney at this point in his life. It would be easy to present him as shifting to a lower gear and turning inward...but that really doesn't describe his life at this moment too well.

After all, he remained ridiculously busy. Besides the Anthology project, he released another classical composition, Standing Stone, a work of instrumental and choir music which followed a broad, poetic story, rather than the more specific and somewhat autobiographical one which characterized his Liverpool Oratorio. Stone is, in my opinion, a much better work. The same cannot be said about his second Fireman excursion into ambient and dance music, Rushes, after the fun and intense Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest; my wife described Rushes, while I was listening to it for the first time, as "mediocre yoga music," and after giving it another try, I had to agree with her. He also, as he did with "The Russian Album," felt inspired to get together with friends and cut an album of classic rock and roll tunes, with a few of original compositions thrown in. Run Devil Run is every bit as good as his previous album of covers, and his original 1950s-style rockers--"Run Devil Run," "Try Not to Cry," and "What It Is"--are all solid, especially the first one. The fact is that McCartney can be a pretty brilliant arranger when he puts his mind to it; his vaguely Zydeco take on Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" is particularly great.

But for all that activity, there are signs of a slower and reflective pace to Flaming Pie, an album he released when he was 55 years old, and which included songs written at various times over the previous decade, several of which he wrote for his own children or as gifts to grieving friends. It opens with "The Song We Were Singing," which is a Donovanesque folk-pop number with a genuine sing-along quality to it; if I were to learn that various church groups or theater troupes tended to break out the tune around the campfire on retreats, I wouldn't be remotely surprised. This sensibility partly haunts the album; "Somedays," "Little Willow," "Great Day," and the gorgeous number "Calico Skies" all have a lovely, folky acoustic feel. "The World Tonight" is a perfunctory and adequate pop song, as is "Young Boy," "Souvenir," and "Used to Be Bad" (there is, honestly, a contractual-obligation feel to some of this), but a couple of the pop-rock compositions on the album really click: "If You Wanna" has a great, solid drive, "Heaven on a Sunday" is wonderful, by turns both funky and groovy (and with a terrific guitar solo by Paul's son James McCartney), and "Flaming Pie" is appropriately Beatlesesque. "Beautiful Night"--which should have been the final song on the album--is simple but charming (and the video is a delight), the only time McCartney and Starr have shared songwriting credit. So, overall a mixed bag, but definitely tending positive; I would have liked it to have been more thoroughly a product of quiet introspection, but I'll give it a B- nonetheless.

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